Davis Campaign Marked by Failed Tactics, Muddled Messages

State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, at a gubernatorial debate in Edinburg on Sept. 19, 2014.
State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, at a gubernatorial debate in Edinburg on Sept. 19, 2014.

On the day last year when state Sen. Wendy Davis launched her bid for the Texas Governor’s Mansion, something she failed to mention got almost as much attention as the speech itself: her filibuster of a bill creating new abortion regulations.

After all, it was that June 2013 stand against the legislation that propelled Davis into instant celebrity and made her a rare Texas Democratic fundraising phenom, so leaving it out was noticeable.

In the Haltom City auditorium where Davis made her announcement, senior adviser Matt Angle, mingling with reporters at the press table, explained why the dramatic event didn’t make the cut. He said in the arc of her compelling biography, it wasn’t all that significant.

“The idea,” Angle added, “is to tell Wendy’s story.”

Thirteen months later, that unexecuted strategy sits atop a trash heap of failed tactics, unmet goals and muddled messages that helped doom Davis to an embarrassing defeat long before the voters rendered their verdict Tuesday night.

 

When the curtain came down on Team Davis, the campaign had not aired a single English-language TV ad focusing on the Fort Worth senator’s up-from-the-trailer-park narrative once seen as her campaign’s thematic foundation. In the final days, Davis couldn’t afford to effectively air such an ad, despite her campaign’s own claims of raising almost $40 million, a top official acknowledged.

Davis probably never had a modicum of a chance to win the Texas governor’s race. The 2014 election turned out to be another wave election that cost Democrats the U.S. Senate, governor’s races in heavily Democratic states and competitive legislative races across the land, including here.

But for more than a year, Democrats were crowing that with a well-funded turnout operation, Davis was the kind of candidate who could at least move the needle for the bedraggled party, which hadn’t won a statewide election since 1994. In one sense they were correct: She moved the needle, all right — backward. 

The spread between Attorney General Greg Abbott and Davis exceeded 20 points, greater than the split between Republican Gov. Rick Perry and Democrat Bill White in the historic Tea Party wave four years ago. In fact, it was the worst showing by a Democratic gubernatorial candidate since Garry Mauro’s 68 percent-31 percent drubbing at the hands of George W. Bush in 1998.

The percentage of Texans who negatively viewed the single mom turned Harvard grad was exceptionally high.

The vaunted ground game that wealthy Democratic donors had been promised by Battleground Texas — started by the very people who pushed Barack Obama over the top in hard-fought contests in Ohio and Florida in 2012 — fell well below even the dismal turnout of 2010, which had made Texas dead last, 51st out of 51, among U.S. states and the District of Columbia. 

Even voter registration, as a percentage of the eligible voter population, dropped from the last governor’s race despite all the talk of a wave of new voters who would start making Texas more competitive. 

And Davis’ message?

 

Whatever it started out as, it bordered on incoherence in the waning days of the race.

Was she an Ann Richards progressive? A good ole gal moderate? Did she run away from President Obama? Toward him?

Over the last 13 months, voters saw all that and more from the Davis operation.

Mixed Messages

If the campaign telegraphed early caution on the abortion issue, Davis threw it to the wind two months out from Election Day, when she released a memoir about her own late abortion in 1997. She went on a weeklong book tour that inevitably focused on abortion rights, followed up by another week spent on the same subject — namely, bashing Abbott for opposing abortion even in cases of rape or incest.

On gun rights, she riled conservatives last fall by embracing restrictions on firearms sales at gun shows, only to take friendly fire in February from bewildered liberal supporters when she agreed with Abbott that Texans should be allowed to openly carry handguns. 

She lauded job-luring tax incentives as a key economic development tool, and even celebrated them during a stop last year at a San Antonio company that got some. But then she attempted to use the programs as a cudgel against Abbott because he had received campaign money from corporate executives who benefited from them.

Davis also blew hot and cold on surrogates. Her campaign, fearing backlash from moderates and independents, reportedly opposed a possible appearance by Hillary Clinton and other big-name Democrats at the state convention this summer, then went on to tout an endorsement from the former secretary of state as Davis' poll numbers began sinking hard before Election Day.

Even more stark was the inconsistent approach to Obama, whose dizzying unpopularity made him a pariah in the 2014 mid-terms, particularly in the South.

Davis initially seemed to distance herself from the president. When he came to Austin in April, for example, she met with him behind closed doors — away from the media and photographers. And it was the White House, not the Davis campaign, that announced the meeting.

Contrast that with the final days of the race, when Davis began running radio ads featuring Michelle Obama, then — to the delight of her Republican opponent — told reporters she would be “thrilled” if the president joined her on the campaign trail in Texas. And on the day before the election, she hopped on a conference call with the president to fire up turnout. 

Davis pollster Joel Benenson, who advised Obama in 2008 and 2012, disputed the notion that Davis see-sawed from one message to another, saying the campaign consistently kept Abbott on the defensive by tagging him as an “insider” working against average Texans. When it came to surrogates, he said the point was to keep the focus on the candidate during the race while using big-name Democrats at the very end to boost turnout.

Benenson’s take: Abbott’s unprecedented war chest allowed him to outspend Davis 3-to-1 on TV by the end of the race, and a national climate that favored Republicans made the climb far too steep to overcome. 

“We were a challenger and an underdog, a significant underdog, in a very red state,” Benenson said. “We also had to deal with the reality that he had an enormous cash advantage and that at any point he could bury us on TV.”

But critics, even some Democrats, say Davis and her partners at Battleground Texas took a challenging situation and made it worse.

Glenn Smith, a longtime Democratic consultant in Austin, said he warned Battleground Director Jenn Brown in the spring of 2013 that the group was overplaying its hand by bragging about the know-how it had gleaned from Obama’s past campaigns in other states. He said he “didn’t get much of a response.”

“You have to speak Texan if you’re going to do well here. They didn’t,” Smith said. “There was this belief after 2012 that if you waved this turnout wand you would wake up some progressive majority. It didn’t exist.”

Battleground did not immediately respond to Smith’s critique.

Optimistic Start

Things didn’t start out so bad for the Democrats.

Thanks to the filibuster, Davis was already well-known, so she wouldn’t have to spend so much money pumping up her name ID. With Perry declining to seek re-election, Davis was competing in the first open governor’s race since Richards was elected. Her opponent, while exceptionally well-funded, was largely untested in high-profile political battles.

In the important race for campaign dollars, Davis had already raised nearly $1 million in the initial days following the filibuster, gaining instant credibility as a fundraiser who could tap into a network of small donors, something that had eluded Texas Democrats for years.

So when the new year began, Davis could legitimately share her party’s hope that, at last, a Texas Democrat could at least make it close for the first time in decades.

The high point came in mid-January, when the first major fundraising reports were released. When adding the money she raised plus the proceeds raised jointly with Battleground Texas, Davis laid claim to a bigger fundraising haul than Abbott for the last critical months of 2013, leading to a burst of positive news coverage.

The First Campaign Crisis

That turned out to be short-lived. A few days later, on Jan. 18, The Dallas Morning News handed Davis her first major campaign crisis when it posted a story criticizing Davis for discrepancies in her official campaign biography.

Throughout her political career, Davis had highlighted her struggles as a single mother, her rise from humble roots in a trailer park to a Harvard law degree and, eventually, the Texas Senate.

But not all of the details were accurate. She was 21, not 19, when she divorced, for example. And her husband’s role in paying for Harvard education had been downplayed in the official campaign version, the newspaper noted.

A day after story ran, Davis press aides Rebecca Acuña and Bo Delp huddled on the phone and came up with a plan. They thought some aspects of the story were unfair or inaccurate, that the discrepancies were relatively minor and that the findings could largely be portrayed as old news, because much of it had already been reported previously in The Texas Tribune and the Houston Chronicle

They agreed Davis needed to push back hard and fast and, together with deputy campaign manager Terrysa Guerra, recommended that Davis stage a news conference to counter the ballooning controversy.

“I was told this was not going to happen. And we did recommend it several more times,” Delp said. “It just didn’t happen.”

Instead, the campaign tried to tamp down the controversy by giving selective media interviews and issuing news releases with a detailed timeline of Davis’ life. 

Looking back, former campaign manager Karin Johanson said she regrets not responding more forcefully to a story that — to her surprise — generated far more attention and in far more media markets than the campaign saw coming.

“I wish we had pushed back a little harder,” she said. Johanson, who left the campaign in June, said Davis faced more early media scrutiny than Abbott, and faced unrealistic expectations for a Democrat trying to break through in conservative Texas.

Finally, after 10 days of bleeding, the campaign shot back with both barrels: first by releasing letters from the candidate’s daughters to fight back against the notion, circulated in conservative media, that she had been a bad mother; then with a fiery speech that evening from Davis in Austin.

“Greg Abbott and his folks have picked a fight with the wrong Texas gal if they think that I will shrink from working to fight for a just and right future for all Texans,” she roared inside the Four Seasons ballroom.

It was Davis at her best — fiery, passionate and taking the battle to her opponent.

The problem is few voters saw the speech in real time because it coincided with the nationwide broadcast of Obama’s State of the Union address in Washington, eating up the political bandwidth she needed to make a huge splash.

Adding insult to injury, the Davis campaign angered Texas news outlets that were not allowed inside the Austin event, which only The Texas Tribune was given permission to cover (and provided a publicly available livestream of the speech on its website).

The controversy finally died down, but by then the damage was done.

Going on the Attack

With polls showing Davis still lagging well behind Abbott in the summer, the Davis campaign decided to gamble early by airing an expensive 60-second attack ad that criticized Abbott for siding with a vacuum cleaner company over a woman who sued it after she was raped by a door-to-door salesman.

“The biggest calculated risk was going up on the air early, which we did in August, and we stayed up on the air. We tried to run as full a program as we could,” said Benenson, the Davis pollster. “We knew that could end up putting us at a disadvantage later on.”

That’s precisely what happened. The Abbott campaign carpet bombed Davis with negative ads — and also ran several positive ones promoting Abbott. In the end, Davis was unable to respond in kind or cut a positive bio ad to counter her negative image, let alone reinforce the struggling-mom narrative the campaign had originally planned to make the centerpiece of its messaging.

For Abbott strategist Dave Carney, airing the expensive TV ad in the dead of summer was one of two gigantic tactical errors Davis made with her advertising campaign. The second, he said, was running the now-infamous “wheelchair ad,” which opened with an empty wheelchair and this jarring line: “A tree fell on Greg Abbott.”

The spot was meant to illustrate hypocrisy on the part of her disabled opponent — specifically, that Abbott sued after his freak accident in 1984 but later sided against victims who sought similar remedies from the civil justice system.

Carney recalls seeing the ad pop up on his phone at Terry Black’s Barbecue in Austin, where he was having lunch with Republican consultants Mark Miner and Rob Johnson.

“I thought my phone stopped because the wheelchair was sort of frozen in place,” he said. “We were all like, this is crazy.”

By the time he got back to his office after lunch, the ad was well on its way to becoming a giant media firestorm, eventually causing even some liberal supporters to question the wisdom of it.

“It was such a self-inflicted wound, because if you had put a picture of Abbott in the wheelchair at the beginning of the ad, it would not have been an issue,” he said. “The empty wheelchair was the issue."

In the ensuing days, Carney said the Abbott campaign's polling showed the ad moved the needle by a significant margin — but by driving voters to Abbott, not Davis. He said it boosted him by at least 5 percentage points. 

On Wednesday, briefing reporters about their own field strategy, Carney joked that the Abbott campaign would have to count the wheelchair ad as an “in-kind contribution” from Davis if it’s determined her campaign honchos were trying to help the Republican win.

Benenson, the Davis pollster, agreed that Davis’ standing with voters began to deteriorate after the wheelchair ad ran, but not because of any blowback from it. He said it was because Abbott poured gobs of money into attack ads and other spots.

“Greg Abbott would not have spent the money they spent if they thought they had broken the race open,” Benenson said.

On that point, the official word from the Abbott campaign is that it had committed itself to a big advertising budget and saw no reason to pull back from it.

But Republican Party of Texas chairman Steve Munisteri said Abbott and his fellow GOP candidates didn’t just want to win. They wanted to crush the Democrats, cut off funding to Battleground Texas and undermine their theory that the Lone Star State will trend Democratic anytime soon, if ever. 

“There’s no question that in the last couple of weeks we changed our goal from winning to annihilating them,” Munisteri said. “When you obliterate the other side, there’s not much for them to say.” 

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